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An Economic History of the American Steel Industry

Author(s):Rogers, Robert P.
Reviewer(s):Nonnenmacher, Tomas

Published by EH.NET (November 2010)

Robert P. Rogers, An Economic History of the American Steel Industry. New York: Routledge, 2009. xiii + 210 pp. $130 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-77760-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tomas Nonnenmacher, Department of Economics, Allegheny College.

Robert Rogers, Associate Professor of Economics at Ashland University, has written a concise economic history of the steel industry in the United States, covering the period from 1830 to the present in roughly 200 pages. A short book of this sort needs a focus, and Rogers provides one by breaking the industry?s history into nine periods and applying Michael Porter?s taxonomy for studying an industry to each period. Each chapter covers one period and has six sections, covering the production process, uses and users of steel, competition within the steel industry, competition from substitutes, inputs, and government relations. The initial impetus for the book was a course on the history of the steel industry that Rogers taught, and the book?s form reflects the author?s desire to reach his original target audience. It is filled with facts about the industry and is written using a clear structure with straightforward language.

In the production process section of each chapter, Rogers provides statistics on industry output and covers the changing technology used in the steel industry, tracing the development of the technology from blast and Catalan to electric and basic oxygen furnaces. The uses and users sections begin with the early users of iron and steel — household goods, agricultural and non-agricultural machinery, construction, and transportation. Later chapters have sections that focus on railroads and automobiles. The sections on competition provide an introduction to the strategic interaction between firms in the industry: how they competed with, merged with, and outmaneuvered one another. Short subsections on the big players, like U.S. Steel, and the smaller players, like minimills, illustrate the heterogeneity in firms, products and strategies. Initially very little competition existed for steel, but later chapters describe how aluminum and later plastics became important competitors, particularly in automobiles, construction, and food containers. The five major inputs that are covered in the input sections are labor, iron ore, coal, scrap steel, and electricity. Earlier chapters focus more on labor, while later chapters focus more on the other four inputs. Related to several of the other sections are government relations, both in the industry itself, including sections on labor unions and the antitrust case against U.S. Steel, and substitute products, such as the antitrust case against Alcoa.

This book?s main strength lies in the uniformity of the chapters. Its target audience, I believe, is undergraduate students interested in an overview of the steel industry. If a student wants to know how U.S. Steel evolved, what substitutes existed for steel, the importance of labor unions to the steel industry, or the pattern of government regulation, this book provides answers to those questions in short sections for various time periods. This strength is also a weakness, however, as the book only provides a brief overview of these topics. Rogers provides good documentation and points the reader to several of the excellent tomes on the history of the industry for further study.

Tomas Nonnenmacher is an Associate Professor of Economics at Allegheny College. His most recent article, ?Culture, Coercion, and Contracting: Labor and Debt on Henequen Haciendas in Yucat?n, Mexico, 1870?1915? is coauthored with Lee Alston and Shannan Mattiace. He is currently working on an article exploring the effect of the Mexican Revolution on labor contracting in Yucat?n, Mexico.

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII